Israeli leaders expressed varying degrees of hostility to the nuclear agreement between Iran and the world's six major powers. But they largely adapted to the reality of the deal and shifted their focus to nonnuclear areas of concern, according to a new brief by Dalia Dassa Kaye at the Rand Corporation. The following are excerpts.
Israeli Policies and Options After the JCPOA
Despite their strident opposition to the JCPOA, Israeli leaders largely adapted to the reality of the agreement as they shifted focus to nonnuclear areas of concern and began preparations for the future. In October 2015, then–Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon, who had forcefully argued against the agreement, acknowledged the new strategic context in a joint press conference with U.S. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter: “The Iran deal is a given. Our disputes are over. And now we have to look to the future.”
A Shift in Focus Away from the Nuclear File to Iran’s Nonnuclear Activities, Particularly Iran’s Role in Syria
Given the intensity of the debate over the nuclear agreement during the spring and summer of 2015, it is remarkable how quickly the nuclear file moved off the Israeli political agenda once the deal survived congressional efforts to overturn it. One major factor that might explain this rapid shift in focus is the surge of violent attacks by Palestinians beginning in October 2015, following attempts by Jewish nationalists to pray on the Temple Mount. In the following months Israelis faced a series of so-called lone-wolf stabbings and car attacks from young Palestinians, leading to the deaths of dozens of Israeli and hundreds of Palestinians killed by the IDF in response. The string of attacks led to an unprecedented rift between Israel’s security and political establishments over the appropriate role of the IDF in responding to Palestinian violence and the role of the IDF in Israeli society. While Iran is associated with Palestinian attacks through its support for Hamas, particularly during the 2014 Gaza conflict, Israelis viewed the renewed Palestinian violence that occurred on the heels of the Iran deal as more homegrown. And such violence is what preoccupied Israelis in the year following the nuclear agreement, helping to explain the sudden and “radical shift” of focus away from the nuclear issue following the agreement.
But while Palestinian violence might have contributed to the downgrading of the Iran nuclear issue in Israeli domestic debates, the conflict in Syria quickly became the predominant concern among Israel’s security establishment. Of course, Israeli concerns about Syria directly relate to Iranian influence and regional power projection, just not to Iran’s nuclear program. Indeed, a wide array of Israeli analysts and military officials view Iran’s regional position and confidence as having strengthened following the nuclear agreement. As one former official and analyst explained, in the Israeli view, the agreement led the international community to view Iran as a legitimate player in the region, increasing Iran’s leverage in Syria.
The most immediate challenge is Iran’s close relationship with Hizballah and Iran’s supply of advanced weaponry to the group. While some Israeli officials and analysts assess that much of Iran’s economic windfall from the nuclear deal will be invested domestically, they are nonetheless concerned about increased funding for the IRGC Qods force and Hizballah. One official explained, “Another $500 million from Iran to Hizballah isn’t a lot for Iran but would be a huge difference for Hizballah.”
Israelis are especially concerned about the growing presence of Iranian forces on Israel’s border in the Syrian Golan region. A high-ranking IRGC general was reportedly killed in an Israeli airstrike in January 2015, although it is not known whether Israel was aware that the general was in the Golan at the time or intended to kill him. Still, the growing Iranian presence in the Syrian Golan increases the potential for escalation, even if unintended. As a former Israeli security official explained, Bashar al-Assad opened up Syria to Iran and Hizballah, allowing Iranian cells to emerge that are likely to be part of any postconflict settlement. Israeli officials see such a permanent Iranian or Hizballah presence on the Golan border as unacceptable, essentially creating a new redline vis-à-vis Iran that has little to do with its nuclear program.
Increasing Discussion About Converging Interests with the Gulf Cooperation Council but Limited Policy Changes
It is no secret that both Israel and the Arab Gulf states share similar threat assessments of Iran. While the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states were less vocal in their opposition to the nuclear agreement and tepidly supported it once finalized, they share Israeli concerns that the agreement will embolden Iran and increase its regional meddling. The GCC states also share Israeli concerns about enhanced U.S.-Iranian engagement, because they also assess that the agreement will legitimize Iran in the international community. Israel and the GCC states share other regional interests beyond Iran, such as supporting President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi in Egypt and bolstering Jordanian stability. Former Israeli and Saudi officials have even appeared together publicly on panels in recent years to discuss areas of common interest, discussions that previously only took place behind closed doors. Behind-the-scenes diplomatic exchanges and business dealings are also believed to be expanding between Israel and some Arab Gulf states.
But despite such developments, there are few signs that the JCPOA has served as an impetus for more-robust and more-visible cooperation between Israel and the Arab Gulf. A major constraint on the Arab side to greater normalization is the continued Israeli-Palestinian conflict; without progress on this front, more-expansive diplomatic and economic ties with Israel are unlikely.
A Direct Military Strike Against Iran’s Nuclear Facilities Is Largely off the Table, but Military Conflict with Iran Is Still Possible
Up until late 2012, an Israeli military strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities seemed plausible. According to a former Israeli defense official, it was not clear to senior Israeli defense officials whether Israeli political leaders were serious about using a military option or were only preparing the military option to increase pressure on the Americans to address the Iranian nuclear problem. Whether the Israeli military was preparing military options for actual use or merely for political influence, the strategy of focusing on the military option became obsolete by late 2012 and early 2013, when it became clear that the diplomatic track with Iran was serious.
[A] military conflict between Iran and Israel is still possible, but it is less likely to be the result of a deliberate Israeli attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities than from an unintended escalation between Israel and Iran in southern Syria (the killing of the Iranian general in the Golan is an example of an incident that could lead to direct military confrontation). As discussed, the presence of Iranian forces in the Syrian Golan and the transfer of sophisticated weaponry to Hizballah are redlines for Israel, and Israel has already demonstrated its willingness to strike inside Syria to demonstrate its resolve.
Israeli Efforts Are More Likely to Focus on Nonkinetic Areas, Exposing Iranian Violations and Sanctioning Iran’s Nonnuclear Activities
While many Israeli officials and analysts expect Iranian compliance with the JCPOA, they still worry about Iran trying to test the limits of the agreement and the West’s resolve to confront Iran. Israel will consequently feel the need to continue exposing what it views as Iranian violations. As one former official put it, “Bibi’s strategy moving forward will be to remain the pain in the neck” that keeps up pressure on Iran in the nonnuclear areas. Netanyahu made it clear after the JCPOA implementation day in January 2016 that “Israel would strengthen its defenses, increase its intelligence resources and ‘warn of any violation’ of the agreement.”
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